Death: Salvation Check Mark
I was an old-school paper list maker, especially when I became the lead pastor at my last two churches. (Why paper? I never learned to type and sadly left technology to those with whom I ministered.) Next to the phone on my desk was my pad of paper. On the left side, I had a list of things I needed to do, including the immediate needs and the “big ideas” I needed to flesh out. The right side of the page was a list of people I needed to check in on. I always desired those to be in-person visits, but at times I had to give in and just reach out by phone (never my first choice).
The fun part of my list-making was putting a check mark to the right of the accomplished tasks or visits. But the lists never ended. I would continue to work my way down the page with new tasks and visits. When I reached the bottom of the page, I would tear it off, prioritize what did not have a check mark, toss the old page in the recycle bin, and then begin two new lists on the next page. Looking at all of the check marks on the page being tossed usually gave me a good sense of satisfaction.
When I came to recognize that I was loved by God at age 17, it was after a couple of years filled with a number of friends wanting me to get what I understood as my “salvation check mark.” I remember Carol sitting on a couch with me in the high school library weeping. She desperately wanted me to say yes to Jesus and get my check mark. Her heartfelt desire, along with many other friends involved with YoungLife—a Christian outreach program for students—was that I would receive salvation and join them in heaven. But, at the time, I just didn’t get it. A number of those friends were at the same parties I found myself, doing the same activities. Was I really just supposed to say I’m sorry about all of the things I had done, get my salvation check mark, and then go on with my life? We were teenagers. I don’t blame any of those great friends. Truthfully, I think of all of them with great thanks in my heart. I just wasn’t ready. And at the time I didn’t realize it was not about my timing, it was about a calling that God would make clear to me just weeks before graduation.
My experience of recognizing God loved me came as I was lying in my bed during the last month of high school. All of the sudden I was overcome with a deluge of love: God’s love. It was a brilliant experience. I was not emotional. I just lay there in simple, powerful awe. And it was as if all of those conversations with my friends and all of the talks I heard at YoungLife condensed into one moment of memory and my response was, “Now I get it. God is real and God loves me.” The next morning at school I spent an abundance of time not attending classes but sharing with my friends about my experience. Joy and celebration were in the air.
I never felt like I received my salvation check mark. God called me into a relationship, an eternal relationship, that has led me over the years to a different kind of walk: a walk into mystical, deep waters—at times turbulent waters—that continue to transform me. I celebrate salvation and I most especially give thanks to God for the gift of living out the fullness of relationship with God alongside many others.
Throughout my professional ministry and life, I was always careful walking the tight rope of describing and teaching about salvation in connection with a relationship with God. I was very clear about the brokenness of humanity and the Holy Trinity’s plan from the very beginning to invite each of us into a profound and intimate relationship. It is quite overwhelming when you think about it. The Creator of all things, of the spectacular universe, loves me and you. The plan of salvation from the very beginning was made intimately personal by the humbling act of God—Jesus—making Godself present to personalize that message of salvation and take upon God’s own shoulders our brokenness, sin, propensity to serve ourselves, and to pave the way towards salvation by paying the price in and by Godself. Really, truly brilliant. This, with the warm breath of God’s Spirit in motion, in all directions throughout creation, and moving into our hearts that we may know the fullness of God’s love. It’s not the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” it’s the “Greatest Gift Ever Conceived and Accomplished.”
Do you desire to walk in deeper waters? I believe that question could be a theme for my ministry. The greatest compliments I ever received were those when people said, “Thank you for living out your faith in front of me.” My walk was never perfect, it was messy at times, but it was and still is authentic. Many people, as I served them, would tell me they desired a more profound relationship with God. A number began that journey in different ways: more Scripture reading; more time in prayer; more time in silence before God; participating in living out their faith in front of others. But I found myself perplexed when their seemingly sincere quest for insight grew stale at the possibility of going even deeper. Most of these people were wonderful “doers” of faith but struggled to “be” with God in relationship. Thus, the stagnation on the journey. So, I’ll be blunt—don’t stagnate. Don’t do things FOR God. Do things WITH God.
One tool I use for “being” with God (list person that I am) is the Spiritual Examen. It's a quick daily look at how we have recognized God’s presence in our actions throughout the day. I think it is best done at the end of the day, but you can find the pattern that works best for your life. This practice goes back to the time of the early church, and there are five easy-yet-profound and transforming steps:
Sit comfortably and ask God to open your heart to God’s presence.
Take a moment to give thanks for the day you have been given to commune with God and others.
Review your day. Are there things that stand out that you want to celebrate or change?
Sit with the challenges, shortcomings, regrets, and lift them to God, asking for the thoughtfulness and strength to make changes.
Look towards tomorrow and how you would like to include God in your thoughts and actions.
The process can last as little as five minutes, but there may be times God speaks directly about something that you need to pray about more significantly. I have found using this process regularly has led me to deeper waters, to offering myself for transformation. It has also led me to a sweeter relationship with God.
As my body continues to fail, and I face my death—not immanent as far as I know, but death all the same—I do not live in fear. I feel peace. A peace that may confound some, but it comes from my relationship with God. I celebrate the salvation I have received, but the peace comes from my closer walk with God.
And that is my prayer for each of you. Healthy or struggling, now is the time to seek to live in deeper waters. If you wait until death is immanent you cheat yourself from the most beautiful gift offered by God: relationship, deep and abiding relationship.